Notes on Notes


Last week’s blog post asked the question whether writers can be excused for note- taking while in the company of others—four people out for drinks in a cocktail lounge was the setting. Responses, of course, varied. One writer I admire admitted that it is, of course, preferable to be fully present with others and attend to the writing later.  Another writer lamented that “People don’t understand the scenes we play out in our heads or the importance of capturing that right word right now because in 10 seconds it will be gone!”

Together they straddled the dichotomy in my mind. I needed more opinions. There was no need to contact Miss Manners on the subject because I found I have had her for a friend all this time.

“Well, I think electronics are the worst kind of rude,” she said. “But the bottom line is if you are going out with friends, the idea is to be present with them. Even gazing out the window with one’s own thoughts can be rude if you are at a table for four and people are sharing their thoughts. I say stay totally available to friends when with them. If inspiration strikes, hold the thought and run to the powder room to make a few astute notes.”

Oh my.  There is no telling how many times I may have offended her over the years.

But before I had a chance to make up my own mind I was off to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) in Seattle, where I would have the opportunity to query more writers on the subject. Being the largest annual literary event in North America, an event Sasha Weiss describes in The New Yorker as “a giant reunion of English majors thrilled to be back at school,” it comes as no surprise which side I came down on.

First I intended to ask JC Sevcik, a born writer. JC was participating in a panel discussion “Strange Families: Domestic Stories Illuminating Social Issues” at The Sheraton, just steps from the Washington State Convention Center. Conference rooms at the Sheraton are named after trees, so slinging my bag over my back I hiked past Douglas, Aspen, Cedar, Spruce, Madronna, and Willow to find him in the Redwood Room, straightening the tables in preparation for the event.

But then I took a seat, realizing that in all the time I have spent with JC, I have never seen him take notes. Yet he never misses a thing. I think he’s just so darn bright, and younger than some of us.

I got out my notebook and pen and waited.

“We write for a myriad of reasons,” moderator-writer Liza Monroy began. “We don’t always know why we are writing or what we are writing. We write to see ourselves through.” And then I don’t know whether she said it, or whether these were my own notes, but “Taking away the notebook is (comparable to) pulling the oxygen.”

In any case, the question was answering itself.

In the final hour of the final day of the conference, I met up with a couple other writer friends. Exhausted, we sprawled on the floor and I posed my question to them. They looked at me incredulously.

“If you want me to be present in the moment, put a pen in my hand,” stated Icess Fernandez Rojas. “I am never more present than when I am writing and reflecting about a slice of life.”

“When I take out my notebook to jot down or respond to something you’ve said, that’s a compliment,” Isla McKetta added. “It means you’ve inspired me to think more deeply.”

Now I don’t know how I ever saw it any other way. We must be up front about being writers, much like photographers shoot pictures and artists sketch. Notes are what we have to mine when we sit down to write. Notes spark stories, indeed, novels.

“Life and writing need not be mutually exclusive—at least not all the time. Almost everything you do, and every place you go, can lead to a story idea or a poem,” states Midge Raymond in her book Everyday Writing. “What matters is that you think like a writer—which in turn makes it impossible not to write…. And carrying a notebook is also a great reminder that no matter where you are, you are a writer.”

I knew all this of course, but for some reason I had to circle back and rally around it.

“Take a ridiculous amount of notes.” Midge Raymond continues. And I will do just that.

Riding home, some of the boys on the bus with me have ear buds connected to music the entire trip, and all day long for all I know. I never meet them, but I know it’s music they love. It’s all good. It’s all art. And no one is hurting anybody.


Filed under taking notes

5 responses to “Notes on Notes

  1. JC Sevcik

    I take notes. I’m just sneaky about it. And I do have a good memory, so sometimes save stuff for later, but usually, because I mostly keep a running notes file on my phone, it just looks like I’m being rude by texting instead of note taking. Frankly, I never really care what people think. I always do my best to be a polite and considerate person, and the people that know me best will give me the benefit of the doubt. Others will figure it out or they won’t, but I’m not going to lose a thought or an idea because I’m concerned that someone might take offense. Usually though, if I’m aware that my timing is bad, I’ll politely excuse myself by saying something like, “excuse me, I’m a writer and I just want to make a quick note on my phone,” and I’ve honestly found that most people are gracious about this and sometimes even flattered because they think they’ve given me an idea, even when I’m writing down something silly they said. 😉

  2. lynn griffes

    Here’s what Wallace Stegner says on the subject of notes, page 104 in “Crossing to Safety”: “Henry James says somewhere that if you have to
    make notes on how a thing has struck you, it probably hasn’t struck you.”

  3. Stegner’s memory must have been superb. Mine, on the other hand, can be like an etch-a-sketch when I get up and walk away from the table.

  4. I didn’t get to AWP this year, but in years past…well, it’s notes all the way down. And at nice dinners with three other people, I have been known to say, “Oooh, just a minute. I have to write that down.”

  5. Electronics are the worst kind of rude. Worse, an entire generation has grown up with absolutely no idea that this is so. Somebody ought to write a book about cell phone etiquette…

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